By Karen Zautyk
What could be better than dinner and a show? How about a free gourmet dinner and a free Broadway-caliber show? And without the hassle of having to trek into New York?
Last Tuesday, March 19, nearly 150 Kearny senior citizens were treated to both at Kearny High School, thanks to the school’s accomplished culinary students and the talented cast of this year’s school musical, “Once On This Island.”
The dinner, which began at 5 p.m., was open to any Kearny resident age 55 and over. Following the threecourse meal, the honored guests were ushered into the auditorium to view a full dress rehearsal of the show, which played to paying audiences March 21, 22, and 23.
Council Member Carol Jean Doyle, who is the governing body’s liaison to the local senior community, explained that the town used to host an annual “senior prom” and spaghetti dinner, but eventually switched to the dinner/ show. Then, a couple of years ago, KHS guidance counselor Kathy Astrella came up with the idea of having the school’s culinary students prepare the food. “It was a way to showcase the students.” Doyle said.
Showcase them, it does.
The menu last week consisted of Spring Dug Parsnip Bisque with peppered bacon and basil oil, Roasted Amish Chicken Supreme, with giblet stuffing and French green beans, and White Chocolate Bread Pudding, with cranberry caramel.
We needed no explanation regarding the dessert, but the other two courses raised questions in our junk-food brain.
We thought a “dug” might be the nickname of a kind of parsnip, but KHS culinary arts teacher and chef Matt Barone kindly explained to us that “spring dug” referred to the time of year the parsnips were uprooted from the soil.
Parsnips are winter vegetables that can be dug from November to April, he said. But the colder they remain, the sweeter-tasting they get, so the “spring dug” ones, sitting in the winter-cold ground for months, are the sweetest of all. The ones his students used for the bisque “were dug just 12 days ago.”
As for the “Amish chicken”: What makes a chicken Amish? Do they wear little bonnets and refuse to be photographed?
It turned out that all the chickens the KHS kids cook come from a farm in Lancaster, Pa. “They are humanely raised, and there are no hormones and no antibiotics used,” Barone said. “They’re like the chickens you would get in the ‘50s.”
Helping prepare the meal, which was done from scratch over several days, were the 21 students in Barone’s culinary arts course, which is offered only to juniors and seniors. Freshmen and sophomores can take basic cooking classes, but culinary arts is on the elite level. Before a student can even enter Barone’s classroom, he or she must be certified by the National Food Safety Program.
The teens are serious about their careers and five of his seniors have already been accepted into three culinary colleges: Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I.; Hudson County Community College, and the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.
KHS also offers a culinary club for students who are interested in the kitchen arts, but not necessarily in pursuing a chef’s career. Barone serves as advisor to that group, which numbers 15.
The club members were also among the 55 KHS student volunteers who helped serve at the dinner, and a fine job they did. Smiling all the way.
“There’s more to education than just a classroom, and this is part of it,” Kearny Schools Superintendent Frank Ferraro told us, taking a break from his meal and surveying the bustling but comfortable room.
Like Doyle, he noted the event was a way to “showcase our students.” And, he said, it was also a prime example of the way “the district interacts with the community.”
“This is what the district is all about,” he added.
KHS Principal Al Gilson, viewing all the activity from a vantage point at the far end of the room, spoke of his amazement at how quickly the students had organized and set up the dining tables and chairs and serving stations, etc. “Look around,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Regarding chef/teacher Barone, Gilson noted, “he’s a great motivator for the kids,” and as for his expertise, “he knows the back of the house and the front of the house.” Qualities that help make for a top chef.
The principal was equally full of praise for KHS’ Brian Toal, director of “Once On This Island,” and Ed Gargiulo, band director for the musical, as well as all the talented students in the cast and working behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, we were unable to attend the performance. But if it was as good as the dinner — and we surmise it was — you’d have to rate it 5 stars.
P.S. We also received a bit of an education at the event. Along with learning about “dug” parsnips and Amish chickens, we finally found out how to pronounce “culinary.”